Nature is Sublime

© Philip Jessup


Landscape into Photography

Oct 1


How I came to landscape photography

I was 12 years old when I began to experience nature with my all my senses. My hometown Washington D.C. was (and still is) remarkably forested. I often played ‘cowboys and Indians’ with boyhood friends in a wooded cemetery on Saturdays after watching a western at the nearby Calvert Theater. I pressed my body into ancient, gigantic oak trees to avoid discovery. I’ve never forgotten that smoky tannin smell or corrugated feel when I came into contact with the oak bark.

As I grew older I hiked in Rock Creek Park and Dumbarton Oaks Park, where it was cool under the canopy on hot, humid summer days. In those days Washington homes were seldom air conditioned.

I purchased my first camera when I was a teenager — a Nikkormat — with earnings from my paper route along tony Wisconsin Avenue. I brought the camera along with dozens of boxes of Kodachrome film on summer canoe trips into the Maine backwoods with my high school buddies. Those 35-mm slides have held up well. I recently scanned, color corrected (Kodachrome shifts blue over time), and presented them at a high school reunion to guffaws of laughter as we relived our youthful, inexperienced selves coping with the Penobscot River’s rapids.

 Phil at age16 paddling down the Penobscot River with his Nikkormat, scanned on a drum scanner from a Kodachrome slide

Phil at age16 paddling down the Penobscot River with his Nikkormat, scanned on a drum scanner from a Kodachrome slide

My social status improved considerably as I documented our efforts to navigate the Allagash and Penobscot Rivers. Everyone paid attention to the photographer! These trips also elevated my love of nature. I was able to see more clearly what was wild and unstable in the Maine backwoods. Oddly, despite the blood thirsty black flies, water snakes, and dangerous Class V rapids we encountered, I felt safer in than back at home in Washington, where my parents tossed dishes at each other during their heated arguments. In this way I became enamored with landscape photography — and color — and spent much of my subsequent professional life in jobs trying to protect the environment.

While I’ve always been serious about photography, when I turned fifty-eight I took a six-month leave from my job as director of a City of Toronto’s climate agency to conduct an extensive photographic survey of Toronto’s fabulous and largely ignored ravines. I was thrilled when Canadian Geographic Magazine offered to publish a selection of my images as a 12-page photo essay entitled, Secret Hollows in its annual environmental issue, May/June 2005. I experienced serenity on those days alone with my Mamiya 7II medium format film camera in those deep ravines. I began to ponder where our love of nature comes from.

 The fabled Nikkormat!

The fabled Nikkormat!


Over millennia we have taken great pains to surround ourselves with gardens, domesticated animals, images of nature inscribed in murals, and paintings on home and office walls. Governments create and maintain parks for public benefit adopting policies and making expenditures that appeal across the political spectrum. Is this collective affinity built into our genes, a result of our evolution from hunters stalking the African savannah to farmers planting grains to urban dwellers arranging cacti on sunlit windowsills?

Toronto, where I have lived for 30 years, is blessed with a large system of natural parks spread throughout its five watersheds. Mile-high glaciers melted 12,000 years ago, releasing rapidly flowing melt water that carved deep ravines in the glacial till. These became corridors for flood control, rail, cars, sewers, factories, and hydro lines. Fortunately, steep ravine walls and high water tables fortunately prevented further development. Pockets of wilderness remained resilient and began to expand. Today, the wooded areas and parks in these ravines have become a valuable, if more or less ignored City asset.

I shot the image below during my photographic sojourn from the City. After a day of shooting in Sunnybrook Park and Glendon Forest, I was hustling back to my parked car along the east side of the West Don River. Dusk approached. I was tired. Suddenly, I stumbled into a large clump of snake grass on the creek bank, a native plant that has largely disappeared from the city. Indigenous peoples used the plant to treat horses afflicted with coughing diseases such as heaves.

 Philip Jessup,  Snake Grass, West Don River, Toronto  (2003)

Philip Jessup, Snake Grass, West Don River, Toronto (2003)

The sun’s rays were piercing the canopy at a low angle, intensifying the orange and yellow colors of October’s dying foliage. I stopped and breathed deeply. This Technicolor moment would not last long. I quickly installed fresh Velvia 50 film, set up my tripod, and then took ten bracketed shots. Available light was fast disappearing.

The forested park spoke to me spiritually and — it seemed at the time — to me alone. I had paused and stopped worrying about making it back to the car before dark. Nature rewarded me with sunlight making a day’s last stand among ancient plants and dying red oak and American beech tree leaves, blasting me in contrasting colors expressing the yin and yang of that moment. The warmth of summer was going. The cold of winter approached. This image subsequently won a bronze medal in the Royal Photographic Society’s 148th annual international print competition in 2005, giving me confidence to step up my photographic game.

Scientist Edmund O. Wilson in Biophilia eloquently argues that humans have an innate tendency to seek out connection with other forms of life. This connection when fulfilled bestows an increased survival rate, psychological health, and when expressed in art, deep aesthetic pleasure.

A growing number of visual preference studies have found that European, North American, and Asian adults alike who are shown different images of natural and urban landscapes uniformly prefer nonthreatening pictures of savannah-like habitats, especially those where a water feature such as a lake is present. Such images facilitate positive shifts in emotional states as well as creativity in general.

As landscape photographers, then, we are mining fundamental psychological if not genetic traits of our fellow humans in our search for the sublime in nature. It not only involves communion with something much larger than ourselves, but our expression of certain visual cues that remind us of the food, water, and peace we required as our species evolved.

The photographer to whom I turn when I need that peace is Fay Godwin (1931-2005), who is best known for her evocative — some would say melancholic — portraits of the English countryside. “If people look closely at my pictures, they might possibly see something else,” she has said.

  Fay Godwin, White Cloud Near Bilsington, Kent (1981)

Fay Godwin, White Cloud Near Bilsington, Kent (1981)

In 1981 she photographed an enormous cumulus cloud hovering auspiciously over fertile farmland. She told Sue Lawley in a BBC Desert Island Discs interview that she had intended to photograph the Bilsington Monument, a memorial obelisk just to the left of the image. But the rare cloud suddenly appeared, so she swerved her camera to the right. The “poor old monument got left out,” she confessed to Young. This image is one of Godwin’s most popular, I suspect in part because the optimistic scene augurs a bountiful, orderly harvest.

This and Godwin’s other evocative images appeal to me because her communal feeling for the landscape comes through so strongly. She hadn’t planned this particular shot. She wasn’t looking for it. A passing moment of nature suddenly happened, and Godwin was there and prepared.

In order to speed my own photographic journey, several years ago I began researching the origins of landscape art and image making. This blog is a result of that ongoing effort. It gives me a chance to ponder the question: why does nature inspire so much meaning and awe in us? Over the coming months I’ll share with you the work of landscape painters and photographers — and writings — that are helping me explore that question.

My next post:  Landscape art first appeared in a Minoan village 3,500 years ago.


Photo: P. Jessup, photographer, Peter Steele Viewing the Sunset on Lobster Lake, Maine (1964)

Photo: Unknown photographer, Phil Jessup Paddling on the Allagash River, Maine (1964)

Photo: Philip Jessup, Snake Grass, West Don River, Waterways series (2003)

Photo: Fay Godwin, White Cloud Near Bilsington, Kent (1981) ©The British Museum

Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (1984)

Roger S. Uhlrich, Biophilia, Biophobia, and Natural Landscapes in Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, editors, The Biophilia Hypothesis, Island Press, Washington D.C. (1993)

Sue Lawley, Interview with Fay Godwin, BBC Radio 4, Desert Island Disks (March 2002)

Phil Photo Square.jpg


Nature inspires us because it is sublime. It puts self into perspective. We are part of something very big. But today nature is vanishing. Rapidly. I’ve started this blog to explore how painters and photographers, including myself, have expressed their love of nature in their art. Maybe what we do as photographers can lead to actions that help shift the tide.

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